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"Zoom Dysmorphia", distortion and anguish about our perception in front of the camera.

Zoom Dysmorphia

How do I look? Am I using filters to improve my appearance? These are some of the questions that many people ask themselves when they start a video call: they pay more attention to their own image than to the speaker who is making their presentation or to their colleagues who are presenting a point about their work.

Massachusetts General Hospital dermatologist Shadi Kourosh, graduate student Shauna M. Rice, and Emmy M. Graber, M.D., founder and president of the Boston Dermatology Institute, recently wrote an article for the journal Facial Plastic Surgery and Aesthetic Medicine entitled "A Pandemic of Dysmorphia: the influence of Zoom calls on our perception of our appearance".

In the article, the authors explain that they have noticed an increase in patients citing their Zoom appearance as a reason for seeking care, particularly concerned about acne and wrinkles.

They detailed that a recent analysis of Google search trends during the pandemic showed that the terms "acne" and "hair loss" are increasing in this new virtual reality. 

They attributed the trend to anxiety and depression, which are common psychological conditions during quarantine. "We suspect that the tendency may also stem from people constantly watching themselves on video and becoming more conscious of their appearance," they said.

Before Zoom took over as the metric used to assess appearance, patients used selfies and an arsenal of photo-editing applications to create filtered versions of themselves. 

Webcams, which inevitably record at shorter focal lengths, tend to produce a generally rounder face, wider eyes and a wider nose. "It is important for patients to recognize the limitations of webcams and understand that, at best, they are a flawed representation of reality."

Nicknamed, Snapchat Dysmorphia, lhe influx of patients hoping to look more like their edited selves has led to widespread concern about their potential to trigger body dysmorphic disorder, the authors note.

The paper details that in 2019, 72 percent of members of the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery reported seeing patients seeking cosmetic procedures to enhance their "selfies." 

In addition, they said, higher levels of social network participation have been shown to correlate with greater body dissatisfaction. 

"Unlike still and filtered selfies on social media, Zoom shows an unedited version of oneself in motion, a self-representation that very few people are used to seeing on a daily basis. This can have dramatic effects on body dissatisfaction and the desire to seek cosmetic procedures," they stressed.

So why are webcams so disturbing to users? 

During real life conversations, we don't see our faces talking and showing emotions, and we certainly don't compare our faces side by side with each other like we do in video calls. 

In addition, cameras can distort the quality of the video and create an inaccurate representation of the actual appearance. 

According to the analysis, one study found that a portrait taken 30 centimeters away increases the perceived size of the nose by 30 percent compared to one taken at five feet. 

What is Zoom Dysmorphia?

Zoom dysmorphia refers to the perception of various flaws after looking at our image for a certain amount of time. Throughout the pandemic, users have been looking for more solutions to improve their appearance while on video conferencing platforms.

Improvements can range from a simple supermarket-bought facial to considering plastic surgery. Which raises the question of whether this phenomenon is strictly a product of the pandemic, or is here to stay.

To further deconstruct the motivations behind this influx of patients in the Zoom era, the experts and authors of the article turned to the facial feedback hypothesis. 

The theory states that facial expressions can affect our emotions and behaviors, to delve deeper into the phenomenon of Zoom dysmorphia.

"Treating wrinkles that look sad can reduce depression by making the patient appear less sad to others, which, in turn, makes them feel better about themselves." 

"Perhaps there is a recent increase in patients seeking cosmetic procedures simply because they now see their imperfections on camera on a daily basis, or because the wrinkles they see on screen make them look more depressed to others and then they actually feel more depressed," they explained.

The theory in the context of Zoom is particularly interesting, as the patient is also the viewer. 

"They may perceive themselves as sad because of the wrinkles they see, which further negatively affects their emotions, leading to a dangerous cycle of self-loathing." 

This, they said, "becomes a big problem when an individual becomes overly preoccupied with real or imagined defects. A life spent disproportionately on Zoom can trigger a self-critical comparative response that leads people to go to their doctors for treatments they may not have considered before months of facing a video screen, a new phenomenon of 'Zoom Dysmorphia.

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Pamela Cruz
Pamela Cruz
Editor-in-Chief of Peninsula 360 Press. A communicologist by profession, but a journalist and writer by conviction, with more than 10 years of media experience. Specialized in medical and scientific journalism at Harvard and winner of the International Visitors Leadership Program scholarship from the U.S. government.

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